Was SpaceX’s Lost Falcon 9 The Victim Of Sabotage?

On Sept. 1st, 2016, aerospace giant SpaceX suffered a terrible setback when one of their Falcon 9 rockets inexplicably exploded during a fueling test. An investigation into the causes of the accident – which Musk described as being the “most difficult and complex failure” in the company’s history – was immediately mounted.

And while the focus of the investigation has been on potential mechanical failures – such as a possible breach In 2nd stage helium system – another line in inquiry also came to light recently. In this case, the focus was on the ongoing feud between SpaceX and its greatest competitor, United Launch Alliance (ULA), and whether or not that could have played a role.

Speculation about this possible connection began after three unnamed industry officials who were familiar with the accident shared details of an incident that happened a few weeks after the explosion. According to The Washington Post, these officials claimed that SpaceX had come across something suspicious during the course of their investigation.

On Sept. 1st, one of SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket's exploded during a static firing test. The company is now facing a potential legal battle over the damage caused. Credit: SpaceX
On Sept. 1st, one of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket’s exploded during a static firing test. The company is now facing a potential legal battle over the damage caused. Credit: SpaceX

After pouring over images and video from the explosion, SpaceX investigators noticed an odd shadow and then a white spot on the roof of building located close to their launch complex. The building is currently being leased by ULA to refurbish their Sensible Modular Autonomous Return Technology (SMART) rocket motors – a key component in the company’s new Vulcan rocket.

Located about one and half kilometers (1 mile) from SpaceX’s launch facilities, and has a clear line of sight on the launch pad. SpaceX dispatched an representative to check it out, who arrived at the building and requested access to the roof. A ULA representative denied them access and called Air Force investigators, who then inspected the roof themselves and determined that nothing of a suspicions nature was there.

While the incident proved to be inconclusive, it is the fact that it was not previously reported that is raising some eyebrows. And it is just another mysterious detail to come from an accident that remains largely unexplained. However, in all likelihood the incident was avoided to prevent embarrassment to either company, and to avoid fueling speculations about possible sabotage (which seems highly unlikely at this point).

In the meantime, SpaceX is still investigating the explosion with the help of NASA, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), the USAF’s 45th Space Wing. Musk commented on the ongoing investigation while attending the International Astronautical Congress in Guadalajara, Mexico.

Mangled SpaceX Falcon 9 strongback after prelaunch explosion destroyed the rocket and AMOS-6 payload and damaged the pad. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Mangled SpaceX Falcon 9 strongback after prelaunch explosion destroyed the rocket and AMOS-6 payload and damaged the pad. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

In the midst of sharing the latest details of his vision to colonize Mars, Musk was quoted by The Washington Post as saying that the investigation is his company’s “absolute top priority.” As for the cause, he went on to say that they have “eliminated all of the obvious possibilities for what occurred there. So what remains are the less probable answers.”

Whether or not sabotage is a realistic possibility, this incident does serve to highlight the rivalry between SpaceX and ULA. Prior to 2014, ULA was the sole provider of launch services for the US Air Force, until a lawsuit from SpaceX compelled them to open the field to competition. Since then, both companies have been fighting – sometimes bitterly – to secure national security contracts.

It has also brought the issue of government oversight and accountability to the fore. On Sept. 29th, members of Congress Mike Coffman (R-Co) and Robert Aderholt (R-Al) sent a congressional letter to the heads of NASA, the US Air Force and the FAA expressing concerns about SpaceX’s recent accidents and the need for “assured access to space”.

In the letter, Coffman and Aderholt indicated that authority for investigating this and other accidents involving commercial space companies should be entrusted to the federal government:

“The investigative responses to both SpaceX failures raise serious concerns about the authority provided to commercial providers and the protection of national space assets. In both Falcon 9 explosions, NASA and the FAA granted primary responsibility for conducting the mishap investigation to SpaceX. Although subject to FAA oversight, it can be asserted the investigation lacked the openness taxpayers would expect before a return-to-flight.”

SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket explodes about 2 minutes after liftoff from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on June 28, 2015. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket explodes about 2 minutes after liftoff from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on June 28, 2015. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

In other words, several Republican members of Congress hope to make SpaceX’s return to flight contingent on more stringent federal oversight. This may prove to be a source of inconvenience for SpaceX, which has stated that they intend to return to regular flights with their Falcon 9 rockets by November 1st.

Then again, increased federal oversight may also be beneficial in the long run. As is stated in the letter, both accidents involving SpaceX in the past few months occurred after the USAF signed off on the rockets involved:

“Both accidents occurred after the Air Force certified the Falcon 9 launch vehicle for U.S. national security launches, less than fifteen months ago. The certification, designed to subject the Falcon 9’s design and manufacturing process to a review of their technical and manufacturing rigor, appears to have fallen short of ensuring reliable assured US access to space for our most important payloads.”

Clearly, something is wrong if technical failures are not being caught in advance. But then again, space exploration is a hard business, and even the most routine checks can’t account for everything. Nevertheless, if there’s one thing that the Space Race taught us, it is that fierce competition can lead to mistakes, which can in turn cost lives.

As such, demanding that the federal authorities be on hand to ensure that safety standards are met, and that all competitors are being subjected to the same regulatory framework (without preference), might not be a bad idea.

Further Reading: The Washington Post

SpaceX Falcon 9 Failure Investigation ‘Most Difficult’ Ever: Musk

Mangled SpaceX Falcon 9 strongback with dangling cables as seen on Sept. 7 after prelaunch explosion destroyed the rocket and AMOS-6 payload at Space Launch Complex-40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL on Sept. 1, 2016 . Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Mangled SpaceX Falcon 9 strongback with dangling cables (at right) as seen on Sept. 7 after prelaunch explosion destroyed the rocket and AMOS-6 payload at Space Launch Complex-40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL on Sept. 1, 2016 . Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

CAPE CANAVERAL AIR FORCE STATION, FL – More than a week after the catastrophic launch pad explosion that eviscerated a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket during a fueling test, the bold and burgeoning aerospace firm is still confounded by the “most difficult and complex failure” in its history, and is asking the public for help in nailing down the elusive cause – says SpaceX CEO and Founder Elon Musk in a new series of tweets, that also seeks the public’s help in the complex investigation.

“Turning out to be the most difficult and complex failure we have ever had in 14 years,” Musk tweeted on Friday, Sept. 9 about the disaster that took place without warning on Space Launch Complex-40 at approximately 9:07 a.m. EDT on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl. on Sept. 1, 2016.

Both the $60 million SpaceX rocket and the $200 million AMOS-6 Israeli commercial communications satellite payload were completely destroyed in a massive fireball that erupted suddenly during a routine and planned pre-launch fueling and engine ignition test at pad 40 on Wednesday morning Sep. 1.

“Still working on the Falcon fireball investigation,” Musk stated.

Check out my new up close photos of launch pad 40 herein – showing dandling cables and pad damage – taken over the past few days during NASA’s OSIRIS-REx launch campaign which successfully soared to space on Sept 8. from the adjacent pad at Space Launch Complex-41.

The rocket failure originated somewhere in the upper stage during fueling test operations at the launch pad for what is known as a hot fire engine ignition test of all nine first stage Merlin 1D engines, said Musk.

However, the countdown dress rehearsal had not yet reached the point of ignition and the Merlin engines were still several minutes away from typically firing for a few seconds as the rocket was to be held down during the pre-planned hot fire test.

“Important to note that this happened during a routine filling operation. Engines were not on and there was no apparent heat source,” Musk elaborated.

Engineers were in the final stages of loading the liquid oxygen (LOX) and RP-1 kerosene propellants that power the Falcon 9 first stage for the static fire test which is a full launch dress rehearsal.

Mangled SpaceX Falcon 9 strongback with dangling cables as seen on Sept. 7 after prelaunch explosion destroyed the rocket and AMOS-6 payload at Space Launch Complex-40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL on Sept. 1, 2016 . Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Mangled SpaceX Falcon 9 strongback with dangling cables as seen on Sept. 7 after prelaunch explosion destroyed the rocket and AMOS-6 payload at Space Launch Complex-40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL on Sept. 1, 2016 . Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The explosion mystery and its root causes are apparently so deep that SpaceX is asking the public for help by sending in “any recordings of the event” which may exist, beyond what is already known.

“If you have audio, photos or videos of our anomaly last week, please send to [email protected] Material may be useful for investigation,” Musk requested by twitter.

Indications of an initial “bang” moments before the calamity are also bewildering investigators.

“Particularly trying to understand the quieter bang sound a few seconds before the fireball goes off. May come from rocket or something else.”

The explosion is also being jointly investigated by multiple US Federal agency’s.

“Support & advice from @NASA, @FAA, @AFPAA & others much appreciated. Please email any recordings of the event to [email protected]

The incident took place less than two days before the scheduled Falcon 9 launch on Sept. 3.

It also caused extensive damage to the rockets transporter erector, or strongback, that holds the rocket in place until minutes before liftoff, and ground support equipment (GSE) around the pad – as seen in my new photos of the pad taken a week after the explosion.

Dangling cables and gear such as pulley’s and more can clearly be seen to still be present as the strongback remains raised at pad 40. The strongback raises the rocket at the pad and also houses multiple umbilical line for electrical power, purge gases, computer communications and more.

One of the four lightning masts is also visibly burnt and blackened – much like what occurred after the catastrophic Orbital ATK Antares rocket exploded moments after liftoff from a NASA Wallops launch pad on Oct 28, 2014 and witnessed by this author.

Black soot also appears to cover some area of the pads ground support equipment in the new photos.

US Air Force personnel immediately jumped into action to assess the situation, set up roadblocks and look for signs of blast debris and “detect, dispose and render safe any possible explosive threats.”

However SpaceX has not released a full description of the damage to the pad and GSE. It cost approximately $15 Million to repair the Antares pad and flights have not yet resumed – nearly 2 years after that disaster.

Up close view of top of mangled SpaceX Falcon 9 strongback with dangling cables (at right) as seen on Sept. 7 after prelaunch explosion destroyed the rocket and AMOS-6 payload at Space Launch Complex-40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL on Sept. 1, 2016 . Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Up close view of top of mangled SpaceX Falcon 9 strongback with dangling cables (at right) as seen on Sept. 7 after prelaunch explosion destroyed the rocket and AMOS-6 payload at Space Launch Complex-40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL on Sept. 1, 2016 . Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The rocket disaster was coincidentally captured as it unfolded in stunning detail in a spectacular up close video recorded by my space journalist colleague at USLaunchReport – shown below.

Here is the full video from my space journalist friend and colleague Mike Wagner of USLaunchReport:

Video Caption: SpaceX – Static Fire Anomaly – AMOS-6 – 09-01-2016. Credit: USLaunchReport

The 229-foot-tall (70-meter) SpaceX Falcon 9 had been slated for an overnight blastoff on Saturday, September 3 at 3 a.m. from pad 40 with the 6 ton AMOS-6 telecommunications satellite valued at some $200 million.

Mangled SpaceX Falcon 9 strongback after prelaunch explosion destroyed the rocket and AMOS-6 payload. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Mangled SpaceX Falcon 9 strongback after prelaunch explosion destroyed the rocket and AMOS-6 payload. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The Falcon rocket and AMOS-6 satellite were swiftly consumed in a huge fireball and thunderous blasts accompanied by a vast plume of smoke rising from the wreckage that was visible for many miles around the Florida Space Coast.

“Loss of Falcon vehicle today during propellant fill operation,” Musk tweeted several hours after the launch pad explosion.

“Originated around upper stage oxygen tank. Cause still unknown. More soon.”

Aerial view of pad and strongback damage at SpaceX Launch Complex-40 as seen from the VAB roof on Sept. 8, 2016  after fueling test explosion destroyed the Falcon 9 rocket and AMOS-6 payload at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL on Sept. 1, 2016. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Aerial view of pad and strongback damage at SpaceX Launch Complex-40 as seen from the VAB roof on Sept. 8, 2016 after fueling test explosion destroyed the Falcon 9 rocket and AMOS-6 payload at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL on Sept. 1, 2016. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Thankfully there were no injuries to anyone – because the pad is always cleared of all personnel during these types of extremely hazardous launch complex operations.

“The anomaly originated around the upper stage oxygen tank and occurred during propellant loading of the vehicle. Per standard operating procedure, all personnel were clear of the pad and there were no injuries,” SpaceX reported in a statement.

“We are continuing to review the data to identify the root cause. Additional updates will be provided as they become available.”

This also marks the second time a Falcon 9 has exploded in 15 months and will call into question the rocket’s reliability. The first failure involved a catastrophic mid air explosion about two and a half minutes after liftoff, during the Dragon CRS-9 cargo resupply launch for NASA to the International Space Station on June 28, 2015 – and witnessed by this author.

All SpaceX launches are on hold until a thorough investigation is conducted, the root cause is determined, and effective fixes and remedies are identified and instituted.

After the last failure, it took nearly six months before Falcon 9 launches were resumed.

Any announcement of a ‘Return to Flight’ following this latest launch failure is likely to be some time off given the thus far inscrutable nature of the anomaly.

The planned engine test was being conducted as part of routine preparations for the scheduled liftoff of the Falcon 9 on Saturday, September 3, with an Israeli telecommunications satellite that would have also been used by Facebook.

The AMOS-6 communications satellite was built by Israel Aerospace Industries for Space Communication Ltd. It was planned to provide communication services including direct satellite home internet for Africa, the Middle East and Europe.

SpaceX is simultaneously renovating and refurbishing NASA’s former shuttle launch pad at the Kennedy Space Center at Pad 39A – from which the firm hopes to launch the new Falcon Heavy booster as well as human rated launches of the Falcon 9.

SpaceX is renovating Launch Complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center for launches of the Falcon Heavy and human rated Falcon 9.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
SpaceX is renovating Launch Complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center for launches of the Falcon Heavy and human rated Falcon 9. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Ongoing work at Pad 39A was clearly visible to this author and other media this past week during NASA’s OSIRIS-REx launch campaign.

SpaceX has indicated they hope to have the pad upgrades complete by November, but a lot of work remains to be done. For example the shuttle era Rotating Service Structure (RSS) is still standing. The timing for its demolishment has not been announced.

Damage at  SpaceX Launch Complex-40 following Sept. 1, 2016 launch pad explosion.  Credit: Lane Hermann
Damage at SpaceX Launch Complex-40 following Sept. 1, 2016 launch pad explosion. Credit: Lane Hermann

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and Planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

Up close view of mangled SpaceX Falcon 9 strongback with dangling cables as seen on Sept. 7 after prelaunch explosion destroyed the rocket and AMOS-6 payload at Space Launch Complex-40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL on Sept. 1, 2016 . Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Up close view of mangled SpaceX Falcon 9 strongback with dangling cables as seen on Sept. 7 after prelaunch explosion destroyed the rocket and AMOS-6 payload at Space Launch Complex-40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL on Sept. 1, 2016 . Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket moments after catastrophic explosion destroys the rocket and Amos-6 Israeli satellite payload at launch pad 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL,  on Sept. 1, 2016.  A static hot fire test was planned ahead of scheduled launch on Sept. 3, 2016. Credit: USLaunchReport
SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket moments after catastrophic explosion destroys the rocket and Amos-6 Israeli satellite payload at launch pad 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL, on Sept. 1, 2016. A static hot fire test was planned ahead of scheduled launch on Sept. 3, 2016. Credit: USLaunchReport

Super Secret X-37B Nears One Year In Orbit Doing ???

For years now, the program to develop the X-37B spacecraft has been shrouded in secrecy. Originally intended as part of a NASA project to develop a reusable unmanned spacecraft, this Boeing-designed spaceplane was taken over by the Department of Defense in 2004. And while it has been successfully tested on multiple occasions, there remain some unanswered questions as to its intended purpose and what has been taking place during these flights.

This, predictably, has lead to all kinds of rumors and speculation, with some suggesting that it could be a spy plane while others think that it is intended to deliver space-based weapons. It’s latest mission – which was dubbed OTV-4 (Orbital Test Vehicle-4) – has been especially clandestine. And after nearly a year in orbit, it remains unclear what the X37B has been doing up there all this time.

Continue reading “Super Secret X-37B Nears One Year In Orbit Doing ???”

ULA Atlas V Delivers Final GPS IIF Navigation Satellite to Orbit for USAF – Critical to Military/Civilian Users

United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket carrying the GPS IIF-12 mission lifted off at 8:38 a.m. EST on Feb. 5, 2016 from Space Launch Complex 41 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket carrying the GPS IIF-12 mission lifted off at 8:38 a.m. EST on Feb. 5, 2016 from Space Launch Complex 41 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

CAPE CANAVERAL AIR FORCE STATION – Despite howling winds and unseasonably frigid temperatures in the ‘sunshine state’, United Launch Alliance’s workhorse Atlas V rocket successfully blasted off this morning, Friday, Feb 5, and delivered the final GPS satellite in the IIF series to orbit for the US Air Force.

The ULA Atlas V carried the Global Positioning System (GPS) IIF-12 navigation satellite to orbit as the booster beautifully pierced the Florida skies – thus completing the constellation of next generation GPS IIF satellites that are critical to both military and civilian users on a 24/7 basis. Continue reading “ULA Atlas V Delivers Final GPS IIF Navigation Satellite to Orbit for USAF – Critical to Military/Civilian Users”

First Atlas Launch of 2016 Set For Blastoff with Air Force GPS Satellite on Feb. 5 – Watch Live

ULA Atlas V carrying UASF GPS navigation satellite is poised for blastoff on Feb. 5, 2016 from Space Launch Complex-41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
ULA Atlas V carrying UASF GPS navigation satellite is poised for blastoff on Feb. 5, 2016 from Space Launch Complex-41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida. Newly installed crew access tower stands to right of Atlas rocket. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

CAPE CANAVERAL AIR FORCE STATION – The first launch of 2016 from Cape Canaveral, Florida, is poised for blastoff on Friday, Feb. 5, and features a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket carrying a US Air Force payload that will fortify the GPS constellation of navigation satellites that is critically important to military and civilian users on a 24/7 basis.

The commercial Atlas V rocket was rolled out to Space Launch Complex-41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida this morning, Thursday, Feb. 4. The USAF Global Positioning System GPS IIF-12 satellite is encapsulated in the 4 meter diameter nosecone. Continue reading “First Atlas Launch of 2016 Set For Blastoff with Air Force GPS Satellite on Feb. 5 – Watch Live”

ULA Skips Competitive Bid for Air Force GPS Launch Contract, Door Opens to SpaceX

Atlas V rocket - powered by Russian made RD-180 engines - and Super Secret NROL-67 intelligence gathering payload following rollout to Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL, on March 24, 2014. Credit: Ken Kremer - kenkremer.com
File photo of Atlas V rocket – powered by Russian made RD-180 engines – and Super Secret NROL-67 intelligence gathering payload following rollout to Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL, on March 24, 2014. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

United Launch Alliance (ULA) has decided to skip the bidding competition for launch of the next generation U.S. Air Force GPS military navigation satellites, a company spokesperson confirmed to Universe Today, meaning that rival SpaceX is set to win its first military launch contract as the only other certified contract contender.

Since bids for the new GPS launch contract – which were the first to be opened by the military to a competitive bidding process since 2006 – were due on Monday, Nov. 16, the door has opened for SpaceX to apparently prevail with the launch services contract, by default, since they are the only other American company certified to launch U.S. Air Force military satellites. Continue reading “ULA Skips Competitive Bid for Air Force GPS Launch Contract, Door Opens to SpaceX”

See EPIC Views of Rotating Earth Daily from NASA’s New DSCOVR Observatory Website

At long last, beautiful new high resolution views of the rotating Earth can be seen daily by everyone at a new NASA website – all courtesy of images taken by NASA’s EPIC camera on board the Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) spacecraft. And as seen in the time-lapse animation above, they provide a wonderful new asset for students everywhere to learn geography that’s just a finger tip away!

The EPIC camera, which stands for Earth Polychromatic Imaging Camera (EPIC), is located a million miles away on the DSCOVR real time space weather monitoring satellite and is designed to take full disk color images of the sunlit side of our home planet multiple times per day.

The EPIC NASA images are literally just a finger tip away, after a 17 year wait to get the satellite into the launch queue since it was first proposed by former VP Al Gore. They are all easily viewed at NASA’s new EPIC camera website which went online today, Monday, October 19, 2015.

To see the daily sequence of rotating images, visit the EPIC website link: http://epic.gsfc.nasa.gov/

This EPIC image was taken on Oct.17 and shows the Australian continent and a portion of Asia.

EPIC image taken on Oct. 17, 2015 showing the continent of Australia and a portion of Asia. Credit: NASA
EPIC image taken on Oct. 17, 2015 showing the continent of Australia and a portion of Asia. Credit: NASA

An annotated guide map illustration identifying the visible land masses accompanies each EPIC image and follows along as the Earth rotates daily.

What a great geography learning tool for student classrooms worldwide!

Annotated guide map identifying the visible land masses accompanies each EPIC image. Credit: NASA
Annotated guide map identifying the visible land masses accompanies each EPIC image. Credit: NASA

DSCOVR is a joint mission between NOAA, NASA, and the U.S Air Force (USAF) that is managed by NOAA. The satellite and science instruments were provided by NASA and NOAA.

EPIC is a four megapixel CCD camera and telescope mounted on DSCOVR and orbiting around the L1 Lagrange Point – a neutral gravity point that lies on the direct line between Earth and the sun.

NASA says that once per day they will post “at least a dozen new color images of Earth acquired from 12 to 36 hours earlier” taken by the agency’s EPIC camera. The EPIC images will be stored in an archive searchable by date and continent.

The image sequence will show “the Earth as it rotates, thus revealing the whole globe over the course of a day.”

“The effective resolution of the DSCOVR EPIC camera is somewhere between 6.2 and 9.4 miles (10 and 15 kilometers),” said Adam Szabo, DSCOVR project scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Maryland, in a statement.

“The color Earth images are created by combining three separate single-color images to create a photographic-quality image equivalent to a 12-megapixel camera. The camera takes a series of 10 images using different narrowband filters — from ultraviolet to near infrared — to produce a variety of science products. The red, green and blue channel images are used to create the color images. Each image is about 3 megabytes in size.”

EPIC will capture “a constant view of the fully illuminated Earth as it rotates, providing scientific observations of ozone, vegetation, cloud height and aerosols in the atmosphere.”

Technician works on NASA Earth science instruments and Earth imaging EPIC camera (white circle) housed on NOAA/NASA Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) inside NASA Goddard Space Flight Center clean room in November 2014.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Technician works on NASA Earth science instruments and Earth imaging EPIC camera (white circle) housed on NOAA/NASA Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) inside NASA Goddard Space Flight Center clean room in November 2014. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The couch sized probe was launched atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 on Feb. 11, 2015 from Cape Canaveral, Florida, to start the million mile journey to its deep space observation post at L1. The rocket was funded by the USAF.

The primary goal of the $340 million DSCOVR satellite is to monitor the solar wind and aid very important forecasts of space weather at Earth from L1.

L1 is located 1.5 million kilometers (932,000 miles) sunward from Earth. At L1 the gravity between the sun and Earth is perfectly balanced and the DSCOVR satellite orbits about that spot just like a planet.

The mission is vital because its solar wind observations are crucial to maintaining accurate space weather forecasts to protect US infrastructure such as power grids, aviation, planes in flight, all types of Earth orbiting satellites for civilian and military needs, telecommunications, ISS astronauts and GPS systems.

This animation shows images of the far side of the moon, illuminated by the sun, as it crosses between the DISCOVR spacecraft's Earth Polychromatic Imaging Camera (EPIC) camera and telescope, and the Earth - one million miles away.  Credit: NASA/NOAA
This animation shows images of the far side of the moon, illuminated by the sun, as it crosses between the DISCOVR spacecraft’s Earth Polychromatic Imaging Camera (EPIC) camera and telescope, and the Earth – one million miles away. Credit: NASA/NOAA

DSCOVR was first proposed in 1998 by then US Vice President Al Gore as the low cost ‘Triana’ satellite to take near continuous views of the Earth’s entire globe to feed to the internet as a means of motivating students to study math and science.

It was also dubbed “Goresat.”

The probe was eventually resurrected and partially rebuilt at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center as a much more capable Earth science satellite that would also conduct the space weather observations.

But Triana was shelved for purely partisan political reasons and the satellite was placed into storage at NASA Goddard.

Thus the practical and teachable science and daily scenes of the gorgeously rotating Earth were lost – until now!

Former VP Al Gore was clearly delighted with today’s launch of NASA’s EPIC website in this pair of tweets:

“Today @NASA launched its site for #DSCOVR’s daily images. I look forward to seeing more from #DSCOVR,” tweeted Al Gore.

“DSCOVR’s site displaying new daily images of Earth from L1 was launched today! Congratulations to all those who made this happen!”

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

NOAA/NASA Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) undergoes processing in NASA Goddard Space Flight Center clean room. Solar wind instruments at right. DSCOVER will launch in February 2015 atop SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
NOAA/NASA Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) undergoes processing in NASA Goddard Space Flight Center clean room. Solar wind instruments at right. DSCOVER launched in February 2015 atop SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
NOAA/NASA/USAF Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) undergoes processing in NASA Goddard Space Flight Center clean room.  Probe will launch in February atop SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket.  Credit: Ken Kremer - kenkremer.com
NOAA/NASA/USAF Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) undergoes processing in NASA Goddard Space Flight Center clean room. Probe launched in February 2015 atop SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Moon Transits Earth in Eye-poppingly EPIC View from 1 Million Miles Away

This animation shows images of the far side of the moon, illuminated by the sun, as it crosses between the DISCOVR spacecraft’s Earth Polychromatic Imaging Camera (EPIC) camera and telescope, and the Earth – one million miles away. Credit: NASA/NOAA
See YouTube version and EPIC camera below[/caption]

An eye-poppingly ‘EPIC’ view of the sunlit far side of the Moon transiting the sunlit side of Earth was recently captured by NASA’s Earth Polychromatic Imaging Camera (EPIC) camera from one million miles away. “Wow!” – is an understatement!

The stunning animation of the Moon crossing in front of the Earth, shown above, and seemingly unlike anything else, was created from a series of images taken in July by NASA’s EPIC camera flying aboard the orbiting Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR), a space weather monitoring satellite, according to a NASA statement.

Have just witnessed NASA’s New Horizons flyby of the Pluto-Charon double planet system, the similarity to what some call the Earth-Moon double planet system is eerie. You could imagine ones heart going out to Earth’s Australian continent as an upside down version of Pluto’s bright heart shaped ‘Tombaugh Regio’ region in the southern hemisphere.

EPIC is a four megapixel CCD camera and telescope mounted on DSCOVR and orbiting at the L1 Lagrange Point – a neutral gravity point that lies on the direct line between Earth and the sun.

The goal of the $340 million DSCOVR is to monitor the solar wind and aid very important forecasts of space weather at Earth from L1.

EPIC will capture “a constant view of the fully illuminated Earth as it rotates, providing scientific observations of ozone, vegetation, cloud height and aerosols in the atmosphere.”

L1 is located 1.5 million kilometers (932,000 miles) sunward from Earth. At L1 the gravity between the sun and Earth is perfectly balanced and the DSCOVR satellite orbits about that spot just like a planet.

The EPIC images “were taken between 3:50 p.m. and 8:45 p.m. EDT on July 16, showing the moon moving over the Pacific Ocean near North America,” NASA said.

This image shows images of the far side of the moon, illuminated by the sun, as it crosses between the DISCOVR spacecraft's Earth Polychromatic Imaging Camera (EPIC) camera and telescope, and the Earth - one million miles away.  Credits: NASA/NOAA
This image shows images of the far side of the moon, illuminated by the sun, as it crosses between the DISCOVR spacecraft’s Earth Polychromatic Imaging Camera (EPIC) camera and telescope, and the Earth – one million miles away. Credits: NASA/NOAA

You can see Earth’s North Pole at the upper left side of the images which results from the orbital tilt of Earth from the vantage point of the spacecraft at the L1 Lagrange Point.

EPIC will take full disk color images of the sunlit side of Earth at least six times per day.

They will be made publically available by NASA at a dedicated website, when the camera starts its regular daily science observation campaign of the home planet in about a month during September.

NASA says the images will show varying views of the rotating Earth and they will be posted online some 12 to 36 hours after they are acquired.

Each image is actually a composite of three images taken in the red, green and blue channels of the EPIC camera to provide the final “natural color” image of Earth. Since the images are taken about 30 seconds apart as the moon is moving there is a slight but noticeable artifact on the right side of the moon, NASA explained.

Altogether, “ EPIC takes a series of 10 images using different narrowband spectral filters — from ultraviolet to near infrared — to produce a variety of science products. The red, green and blue channel images are used in these color images.”

EPIC should capture these Earth-Moon transits about twice per year as the orbit of DSCOVR crosses the orbital plane of the moon.

The closest analog according to NASA came in May 2008 when NASA’s Deep Impact spacecraft “captured a similar view of Earth and the moon from a distance of 31 million miles away. The series of images showed the moon passing in front of our home planet when it was only partially illuminated by the sun.”

We never see the far side of the moon from Earth since the bodies are tidally locked. And its quite apparent from the images, that the moon’s far side looks completely different from the side facing Earth. The far side lacks the large, dark, basaltic plains, or maria, that are so prominent on the Earth-facing side.

“It is surprising how much brighter Earth is than the moon,” said Adam Szabo, DSCOVR project scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, in a statement.

“Our planet is a truly brilliant object in dark space compared to the lunar surface.”

DSCOVR is a joint mission between NOAA, NASA, and the U.S Air Force (USAF) that is managed by NOAA. The satellite and science instruments were provided by NASA and NOAA.

Technician works on NASA Earth science instruments and Earth imaging EPIC camera (white circle) housed on NOAA/NASA Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) inside NASA Goddard Space Flight Center clean room in November 2014.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/AmericaSpace
Technician works on NASA Earth science instruments and Earth imaging EPIC camera (white circle) housed on NOAA/NASA Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) inside NASA Goddard Space Flight Center clean room in November 2014. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The couch sized probe was launched atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 on Feb. 11, 2015 from Cape Canaveral, Florida, to start a million mile journey to its deep space observation post. The rocket was funded by the USAF.

DSCOVR was first proposed in 1998 by then US Vice President Al Gore as the low cost ‘Triana’ satellite to take near continuous views of the Earth’s entire globe to feed to the internet as a means of motivating students to study math and science. It was eventually built as a much more capable Earth science satellite that would also conduct the space weather observations.

But Triana was shelved for purely partisan political reasons and the satellite was placed into storage at NASA Goddard and the science was lost until now.

It was also dubbed “Goresat.’

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

Video caption: This animation shows images of the far side of the moon, illuminated by the sun, as it crosses between the DISCOVR spacecraft’s Earth Polychromatic Imaging Camera (EPIC) camera and telescope, and the Earth – one million miles away. Credit: NASA/NOAA

NOAA/NASA Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) undergoes processing in NASA Goddard Space Flight Center clean room. Solar wind instruments at right. DSCOVER will launch in February 2015 atop SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/AmericaSpace
NOAA/NASA Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) undergoes processing in NASA Goddard Space Flight Center clean room. Solar wind instruments at right. DSCOVER launched in February 2015 atop SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Launch of NOAA DSCOVR satellite from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on Feb. 11, 2015 to monitor solar storms and space weather.   Credit:  Julian Leek
Launch of NOAA DSCOVR satellite from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on Feb. 11, 2015 to monitor solar storms and space weather. Credit: Julian Leek

USAF High Throughput Tactical Satcom Takes Flight in Stunning Florida Sunset Blastoff

CAPE CANAVERAL AIR FORCE STATION, FL – An advanced military communications satellite that will significantly fortify tactical communications amongst U.S. and allied military forces took flight this evening, July 23, during a stunning sunset blastoff of a United Launch Alliance Delta IV rocket from the Florida space coast as threatening weather luckily skirted away from the launch site in the waning hours of the countdown.

The United Launch Alliance (ULA) Delta IV rocket successfully launched the Wideband Global SATCOM-7 (WGS-7) communications satellite for the U.S. Air Force at 8:07 p.m. EDT Thursday evening, July 23, from Space Launch Complex-37 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida.

The evening hues in the sunset skies over the launch pad region were stellar and wowed spectators all along the space coast region.

The Wideband Global SATCOM system provides “anytime, anywhere communication” for allied military forces “through broadcast, multicast and point to point connections,” according to ULA.

A United Launch Alliance (ULA) Delta IV rocket carrying the WGS-7 mission for the U.S. Air Force launches from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl, on July 23, 2015.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
A United Launch Alliance (ULA) Delta IV rocket carrying the WGS-7 mission for the U.S. Air Force launches from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl, on July 23, 2015. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The $570 million WGS 7 satellite is part of a significant upgraded constellation of high capacity communications satellites providing enhanced communications capabilities to American and allied troops in the field for the coming two decades.

“WGS provides essential communications services, allowing Combatant Commanders to exert command and control of their tactical forces, from peace time to military operations.”

Following a one day launch postponement forced by drenching rainstorms, widespread thunderstorms and heavy winds on Wednesday, the initial outlook for Thursdays weather looked at first like it would repeat the dismal weather conditions in the central Florida region and cause another scrub.

Luckily the forecast storms relented and heavy rains and thunder passed through the launch pad area earlier enough in the day that technicians for rocket provider ULA were able to fuel the rocket as planned with cryogenic propellants starting around four hours before the liftoff.

WGS-7 is the seventh in a series of high capacity that will broaden tactical communications for U.S. and allied forces at both a significantly higher capacity and lower cost.

The Boeing built WGS-7 will provide the U.S. and allied militaries with 17 percent more secure communications bandwidth. It is also the only military satellite communications system that can support simultaneous X and Ka band communications.

“Every WGS that we deliver increases the ability of U.S. and allied forces to reliably transmit vital information,” said Dan Hart, Boeing vice president, Government Satellite Systems.

A United Launch Alliance (ULA) Delta IV rocket carrying the WGS-7 mission for the U.S. Air Force launches from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl, on July 23, 2015.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
A United Launch Alliance (ULA) Delta IV rocket carrying the WGS-7 mission for the U.S. Air Force launches from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl, on July 23, 2015. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

It sent signals confirming its health soon after launch.

Altogether Boeing is manufacturing 10 WGS satellites for the U.S. Air Force.

The WGS payload bandwidth will be enhanced even more for the last three satellites in the WGS series. To further improve connectivity the payload bandwidth will double for WGS-8.

Boeing also promises big cost reductions on the last four WGS satellites by instituting additional commercial manufacturing procedures.

“By utilizing commercial processes, we are able to offer greater capacity at a lower spacecraft cost, resulting in more than $150 million in savings for WGS-7 through WGS-10,” noted Hart.

Delta IV rocket aloft carrying WGS-7 mission for the U.S. Air Force on United Launch Alliance launch from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl, on July 23, 2015.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Delta IV rocket aloft carrying WGS-7 mission for the U.S. Air Force on United Launch Alliance launch from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl, on July 23, 2015. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Tonight’s spectacular liftoff was the second successful ULA launch in just eight days from Cape Canaveral. Last week a ULA Atlas V launched the latest GPS satellite for the USAF.

The WGS launch also marked ULA’s seventh launch in 2015. Overall this was ULA’s 98th successful one-at-a-time launch since the company was formed in December 2006 as a joint venture between Lockheed and Boeing.

Wideband Global SATCOM-7 (WGS-7) communications satellite artist’s concept. Credit: Boeing
Wideband Global SATCOM-7 (WGS-7) communications satellite artist’s concept. Credit: Boeing

“Kudos to the Air Force and all of our mission partners on today’s successful launch and orbital delivery of the WGS-7 satellite. The ULA team is honored work with these premier U.S. government and industry mission teammates and to contribute to the WGS enhanced communications capabilities to the warfighter,” said Jim Sponnick, ULA vice president, Atlas and Delta Programs.

“The team continues to emphasize reliability, and one launch at a time focus on mission success to meet our customer’s needs.”

United Launch Alliance Delta IV rocket to carry US Air Force WGS 7 military communications satellite into orbit. Launch reset for Thursday, July 23, at 8:07 p.m. EDT.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
United Launch Alliance Delta IV rocket to carry US Air Force WGS 7 military communications satellite into orbit. Launch reset for Thursday, July 23, at 8:07 p.m. EDT. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The Delta IV Medium+ rocket launched in a 5,4 configuration with a 5-meter diameter composite payload fairing built by Orbital ATK and with four solid rocket motors augmenting the first stage common booster core powered by a single RS-68A main engine. Each of the 60 inch diameter GEM-60 solids from Orbital ATK produces about 200,000 lbs of thrust.

This was the first flight of the Delta IV with the newly upgraded RS-68 engine.

The Aerojet Rocketdyne RS-68A first stage main engine burns cryogenic liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen which generates about 702,000 lbf of thrust at sea level. The upper stage was powered by an Aerojet Rocketdyne RL10B-2 engine

“The modified nozzle on the RS-68A supports a 17% increase in engine performance,” Andrew Haaland of Orbital ATK told Universe today at the media viewing site.

United Launch Alliance (ULA) Delta IV rocket carrying the WGS-7 mission for the U.S. Air Force launches from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl, on July 23, 2015.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
United Launch Alliance (ULA) Delta IV rocket carrying the WGS-7 mission for the U.S. Air Force launches from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl, on July 23, 2015. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

United Launch Alliance Delta IV rocket to carry US Air Force WGS 7 military communications satellite into orbit. Launch reset for Thursday, July 23, at 8:07 p.m. EDT.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
United Launch Alliance Delta IV rocket to carry US Air Force WGS 7 military communications satellite into orbit. Launch reset for Thursday, July 23, at 8:07 p.m. EDT. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

ULA Delta IV Rocket Launches July 23 with USAF High Capacity Satcom: Watch Live

CAPE CANAVERAL AIR FORCE STATION, FL – A high powered military communications satellite for the US Air Force is now slated for launch on a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Delta IV rocket on Thursday evening, July 23, following a scrub called on Wednesday due to powerful thunderstorms passing too close to the Cape Canaveral launch pad in Florida.

Heavy rain and thunderstorms within range of the Delta IV launch pad at Space Launch Complex-37 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida, forced ULA to scrub the blastoff originally set for Wednesday, July 22.

Due to deteriorating weather, ULA technicians were had to stop processing the rocket for launch and were unable to fuel the propellant tanks. Predicted high winds were also a factor in the launch scrub.

The Delta IV liftoff with the Wideband Global SATCOM 7 (WGS 7) satellite was reset for Thursday, July 23, at 8:07 p.m. EDT

The window extends for 39 minutes until 8:46 p.m. EDT.

You can watch the Delta launch live on a ULA webcast that starts at 7:47 p.m. EDT here:

http://www.ulalaunch.com/webcast.aspx

Up close look at base of first stage of United Launch Alliance Delta IV rocket and four solid rocket motors lofting US Air Force WGS 7 military communications satellite into orbit. Launch reset for Thursday, July 23, at 8:07 p.m. EDT.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Up close look at base of first stage of United Launch Alliance Delta IV rocket and four solid rocket motors lofting US Air Force WGS 7 military communications satellite into orbit. Launch reset for Thursday, July 23, at 8:07 p.m. EDT. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The weather forecast for Thursday July 23, calls for a 60 percent chance of acceptable weather conditions at launch time.

The $570 million WGS 7 satellite is part of a significant upgraded constellation of high capacity communications satellites providing enhanced communications capabilities to American troops in the field for the next two decades.

United Launch Alliance Delta IV rocket to carry US Air Force WGS 7 military communications satellite into orbit. Launch reset for Thursday, July 23, at 8:07 p.m. EDT.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
United Launch Alliance Delta IV rocket to carry US Air Force WGS 7 military communications satellite into orbit. Launch reset for Thursday, July 23, at 8:07 p.m. EDT. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

“WGS enables more robust and flexible execution of Command and Control, Communications, Computers, Intelligence,Surveillance and Reconnaissance (C4ISR), as well as battle management and combat support information functions,” according to ULA.

The Delta IV Medium+ rocket will launch in a 5,4 configuration with a 5-meter diameter payload fairing and four solid rocket motors augmenting the first stage core powered by a single RS-68 main engine.

The RS-68 burns cryogenic liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen which generates about 702,000 lbf of thrust at sea level.

Fueling of the rocket has begun!

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer